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Flight demands may have steered the evolution of bird egg shape

Elongated, asymmetrical forms are common among strongest fliers

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2:00pm, June 22, 2017
eggs

EGG DIVERSITY  Bird eggs vary greatly in shape, size and color. In a new analysis, researchers look for links between egg shape and birds’ traits and lifestyles.

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The mystery of why birds’ eggs come in so many shapes has long been up in the air. Now new research suggests adaptations for flight may have helped shape the orbs.  

Stronger fliers tend to lay more elongated eggs, researchers report in the June 23 Science. The finding comes from the first large analysis of the way egg shape varies across bird species, from the almost perfectly spherical egg of the brown hawk owl to the raindrop-shaped egg of the least sandpiper.

“Eggs fulfill such a specific role in birds — the egg is designed to protect and nourish the chick. Why there’s such diversity in form when there's such a set function was a question that we found intriguing,” says study coauthor Mary Caswell Stoddard, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University.

Previous studies have suggested many possible advantages for different shapes. Perhaps cone-shaped eggs are less likely to roll out of the nest of cliff-dwelling birds; spherical eggs might be more resilient to damage in the nest. But no one had tested such hypotheses across a wide spectrum of birds.

Stoddard and her team analyzed almost 50,000 eggs from 1,400 species, representing about 14 percent of known bird species. The researchers boiled each egg down to its two-dimensional silhouette and then used an algorithm to describe each egg using two variables: how elliptical versus spherical the egg is and how asymmetrical it is — whether it’s pointier on one end than the other.

Next, the researchers looked at the way these two traits vary across the bird family tree. One pattern jumped out: Species that are stronger fliers, as measured by wing shape, tend to lay more elliptical or asymmetrical eggs, says study coauthor L. Mahadevan, a mathematician and biologist at Harvard University.

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Shape spread

By examining the eggs of 1,400 species (each species’ average egg is represented on this scatterplot by a pale orange dot), researchers found that the shape of bird eggs is determined by two variables: ellipticity and asymmetry. Dark orange dots mark species highlighted as examples.

egg graph

Mahadevan cautions that the data show only an association, but the researchers propose one possible explanation for the link between flying and egg shape. Adapting to flight streamlined bird bodies, perhaps also narrowing the reproductive tract. That narrowing would have limited the width of an egg that a female could lay. But since eggs provide nutrition for the chick growing inside, shrinking eggs too much would deprive the developing bird. Elongated eggs might have been a compromise between keeping egg volume up without increasing girth, Stoddard suggests. Asymmetry can increase egg volume in a similar way.

Testing a causal connection between flight ability and egg shape is tough “because of course we can’t replay the whole tape of life again,” says Claire Spottiswoode, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge who wrote a commentary accompanying the study. Still, Spottiswoode says the evidence is compelling: “It’s a very plausible argument.”

Santiago Claramunt, associate curator of ornithology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, isn’t convinced that flight adaptations played a driving role in the evolution of egg shape. “Streamlining in birds is determined more by plumage than the shape of the body — high performing fliers can have rounded, bulky bodies” he says, which wouldn’t give elongated eggs the same advantage over other egg shapes. He cites frigate birds and swifts as examples, both of which make long-distance flights but have fairly broad bodies. “There's certainly more going on there.”

Indeed, some orders of birds showed a much stronger link between flying and egg shape than others did. And while other factors — like where birds lay their eggs and how many they lay at once — weren’t significantly related to egg shape across birds as a whole, they could be important within certain branches of the bird family tree.

Citations

M.C. Stoddard et al. Avian egg shape: Form, function and evolution. Science. Vol. 356, June 23, 2017, p. 1249. doi: 10.1126/science.aaj1945.

C.N. Spottiswoode. The most perfect thing, explained. Science. Vol. 356, June 23, 2017, p. 1234. doi: 10.1126/science.aan2517.

Further Reading

S. Milius. Why crested penguins lay mismatched eggs. Science News. Vol. 190, December 24, 2016, p. 4.

M. Rosen. Dino eggs came in different colors. Science News. Vol. 187, June 27, 2015, p. 14.

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